Oscar Wilde, the Irish poet and novelist, wrote, “Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes.” Although I like this statement, I get a little nervous when a fire alarm system contractor smiles and says, “Boy, do I have a lot of experience!” Let’s face it. We all make mistakes, and many of us feel that, if we did not make some mistakes, we would make little progress. Nevertheless, we have to remember that we are in the life safety business, so we really should endeavor to keep our mistakes to a bare minimum. And maybe, if we could learn from others’ mistakes, we could meet that goal.


What are some of the more common mistakes that fire alarm contractors make? Here are a few that I have found contractors making all too frequently.


The first mistake contractors make: beginning a fire alarm system installation with no plan of how they will actually perform the installation. Typically, I watch a contractor show up with a truck full of raceway, wire and other hardware. Then, the contractor briefly looks at the fire alarm system plans and starts the installation. This behavior pattern usually happens because he or she miscalculated the time needed for the installation and wants to get started right away to avoid losing money.


However, a smart contractor will take the plans and walk through the building to see what construction issues or other trades’ installations may interfere with the fire alarm system equipment locations. At the same time, the contractor can use this walk-through to begin to plan the raceway installation and look for efficiencies in labor and materials while fully executing the requirements on the plans.


The second mistake contractors make: laying out the circuits for the audible and visible notification appliances without ensuring each circuit will have approximately the same amount of line loss and that none of the circuits will end up overloaded. The contractor can formulate a preliminary layout at the office. But once in the field, he or she will need to adjust for construction issues; the layout likely will change. The circuit layout will also help identify if the design will meet the audibility and visibility requirements of NFPA 72 2013, the National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code.


In regard to installation wiring, a wise contractor will develop a detailed color code for all the systems he or she installs and require the installers to follow it. Not only does this help keep things straight during the installation, it helps during the troubleshooting phase and future service calls. Knowing you have established a detailed color code will also help when you must provide bids on inspection, testing and maintenance contracts for the jobs you have installed.


The third common mistake contractors make: letting the customer design the system. You might ask how that could happen, but I have witnessed many contractors blindly following designs based solely on customer-driven cost and the customer’s misunderstanding of how smoke or heat detectors and notification appliances work. Such 
customer-based designs usually call for far too few detectors and notification appliances to meet the code requirements.


The fourth all-too-common mistake contractors make: a total lack of awareness, knowledge and understanding of the requirements contained in NFPA 72 2013. And, this lack of awareness, knowledge and understanding of the code applies to the contractors and their technicians. 


Many misquote what they think the code requires. They misunderstand simple things, such as knowing that a fire alarm system provides three signals: alarm, supervisory and trouble. The code provides clear requirements: fire alarm can only indicate a fire; supervisory signals will indicate that a fire protection or other safety system is not in working order; and a trouble signal indicates a fault in the control unit or system wiring. Many contractors I meet do not have a copy of NFPA 72 in their truck. It would seem a little difficult to check whether some work you plan to do meets the requirements of the code if you don’t have a copy to reference!


The fifth common mistake contractors make: buying fire alarm equipment from a source that cannot provide installation assistance or fire alarm service backup. This may be a subject that you just can’t bring yourself to address, but I commonly hear a contractor say that his or her technicians know how to install and program a fire alarm system and they don’t need any help. Or, the contractor buys on price with programming services supplied on an as-needed basis. Of course, the contractor fails to acknowledge that the supplier does not have enough programmers on staff. Thus, the contractor’s project will suffer delays because of unresolved programming mistakes. 


This does not begin to complete all of the mistakes I could discuss here. As someone trying to maintain a profitable, sustainable contracting business, you must ask yourself how much experience you are willing to gain through your own mistakes. Or, will you develop a mindset where you will learn from the mistakes of others? Become a qualified fire alarm contractor who knows that code-
compliant system installations can be very profitable.